When I told a friend I was on my way to the demonstration in support of former BART cop Johannes Mehserle in Walnut Creek yesterday she said “Ah, the mythical land of the white people.”
While I’m white myself, it did feel surreal to drive only thirty minutes from my office in the, shall we say, racially-diverse Tenderloin to the dusty beigeness of the Walnut Creek Courthouse on San Ygnacio Street, where there was nothing much but gas stations (boarded up, just in case), eerily quiet office buildings up for lease, and flag-bearing protesters holding signs with charming phrases such as “IF U DON’T LIKE POLICE OFFICERS, NEXT TIME YOU NEED HELP CALL A METH HEAD.”
To be fair, there were plenty of people at the protest protesting the protest itself (try saying that ten times fast). “I’m sick of Concord being called KKK-Concord,” a feisty woman holding a “Tea Baggers are Nuts” sign told me. “He listens to Glen Beck! He listens to Glen Beck!” she yelled gleefully as someone walked by with a “Mehserle Is Not a Monster” sign.
Most of the pro-Grant ralliers were not from the area. “We’re from Oakland, Pittsburgh,” one Grant supporter told me. “These people are from Walnut Creek,” he said with a wry smile, knowing I’d know which people he meant.
Actually, most of the pro-Mehserle people I spoke with were from other places around the Bay Area – San Jose, Brentwood, Danville. None of them said they thought it was odd that the protest was held in Walnut Creek. “It’s accessible,” most said, and “close to BART.”
Some pointed out that the shooting didn’t take place in Oakland, so it “didn’t make any sense” for them to protest there. Only a few people admitted they felt safer in Walnut Creek than they would have in Oakland.
Watching the pro-Grant and pro-Mehserle supporters yell back and forth at one another, I thought about the potential of having so many representatives from diverse parts of the Bay Area in one space. What if we had a sort of NorCal United Nations? My quixotic thoughts quickly passed when I almost got knocked over by a “KKKiller KKKops” sign.
The pro-Mehserle group congregated in the court parking lot, about six feet above the pro-Grant group on the street below. With some exceptions, the pro-Mehserle protesters were almost all white and 30+ while the pro-Grant group was composed of varied ages and ethnicities.
The two groups yelled back and forth to each other via loudspeakers and waved signs ranging from polite (“Understanding will permit healing”) to abrasive (“Jail all Racist Killer Cops”).
Both groups lived up to their respective stereotypes. “How many other murderers do you support?” one pro-Grant woman yelled to the crowd above. Another man asked me if this wasn’t all a cover to distract from the “Black Agenda” (you can guess which side he was on).
A number of pro-Mehserle supporters were somehow related to police (apparently Mehserle’s father was there, too, but I didn’t speak to him). A self-described “pro-cop” college student told me she was there to support her father, a Lieutenant.
“I don’t think this is about race at all,” she said. “I’m not saying everyone’s perfect, not even all police… there may be some imperfections, but this is the legal system we were brought up knowing.”
A BART policeman, watching from gas station across the street to make sure things didn’t escalate, said “until you walk in a police officer’s shoes” it’s impossible to understand the complexities of such a “difficult situation.”
I left shortly before four pm, wishing we could do more than just berate each other in the afternoon heat. Even protesting in Oakland is somewhat futile (unless you count those who got sneakers out of last week’s rally).
“This is the world we chose,” the Lieutenant’s daughter said to me. “We don’t have to live like this,” other pro-Grant supporters chanted. They’re both right. Grant is dead, and Mesherle is going to jail. Almost everyone I spoke with, on both sides, admitted that they thought both men would have acted differently if they got a second chance.
So, what happens now? “I think you’re getting an good representation of California,” one pro-Mehserle supporter told me during the rally. He was talking about his cohorts, but the truth is that our state – and our Bay Area – is filled with both die-hard liberals and tea partiers. If only there was a way for us to talk rather than yell.
See the video Katie took at the protest for her day job at SF Gate here, note that there’s strong language so it you’re at work, pop on the headphones.